When Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras and brought about a change of guard in Tennis

Roger Federer is the 20-time Grand Slam champion and has won Wimbledon eight times, but his win against Pete Sampras in 2001 was the passing of the torch to the next generation.

Roger Federer defeated Pete Sampras in the only encounter these two legends ever played against each other. (Image credit: ATP Tennis Twitter)

In the Tennis world, the current trio of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have redefined dominance. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won a total of 59 Grand Slams from 2003 onwards. Federer set the original benchmark, Nadal matched it and now Djokovic is snapping on their heels. However, in the 90s, there was a similar period of domination by two players. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were the stars who dominated the Tennis world in that period.

Sampras was the ‘King of Grass’, having won seven Wimbledon titles from 1993 to 2000. He had lost only once, that too to Richard Krajicek in the quarterfinal of the 1996 Wimbledon final. Andre Agassi had become the first man since Rod Laver to have won all four Grand Slams in the Open Era in 1999. Sampras and Agassi often clashed and their matches would be a treat for the millions.

In 2001, Sampras was already becoming vulnerable. After winning Wimbledon for the seventh time in 2000, he lost in the final of the US Open to Marat Safin. In the 2001 Australian Open, he lost to Todd Martin and he bowed out in the French Open. But, on Wimbledon, it was expected that Sampras would regain his best.

Baby steps for Roger Federer

In that period, Federer was slowly finding his feet in the ATP Tour. He had reached the quarterfinal of the French Open and was in good form in most tournaments. At Wimbledon, he was seeded 15th. Not many people knew about Federer. However, there were some in the circuit who felt that this kid was destined for greatness. This was the first time Federer was seeded in a Grand Slam.

Sampras had a good start against Francisco Clavet in the first round but he had a major stumble in the second round. Facing Bob Cowan, a wildcard from the United Kingdom, Sampras was leading by two sets to love but Cowan won the next two sets in dramatic fashion. In the final set, Sampras held his nerve and won 6-3. The American defeated Sargis Sargsian in straight sets to reach the fourth round.

Federer’s fortunes were similar to Sampras. In the first round, he beat Christopher Rochus in straight sets. However, against Xavier Malisse, he was in trouble. Federer was leading two sets to love but lost the next two sets. Federer won the final set 6-3 to advance. In the third round, he defeated Jonas Bjorkman to set up a clash with Sampras.

The Roger Federer vs Pete Sampras match

Wimbledon 2001 was treated to an epic match between Federer and Sampras. The American was jolted early when he lost the first set in a tie-breaker. Sampras won the next set 7-5. Federer again took the lead by winning the third set 6-4, only for Sampras to level it back by winning the tie-breaker. It was an even contest and it see-sawed at different intervals.

Federer had called Sampras his idol. On the hallowed turf of Wimbledon, in an arena where Sampras dominated, Federer was pushing him to the limit. In the final set, Federer was leading 6-5. The Swiss held his nerve and was 15-40 with two match points in hand. Sampras served out wide to the right of Federer. The Swiss responded with a forehand pass down the line and sank to his knees.

Federer had finally dethroned Sampras and he established a new change of the guard. Such were the efforts of Federer that a short 52-minute film ‘Roger Federer vs. Pete Sampras: The Changing of the Guard’ was released in 2001. After the match, Sampras said that Federer is ‘extra-special’. It would be prophetic words from the American.

The legacy of Federer and Sampras

Sampras would win the 2002 US Open and retire from Tennis with 14 Grand Slam titles. In 2003, Federer established a level of dominance, unlike anyone. He would win Wimbledon a record five consecutive times. In the end, he would break Sampras’ tally of 14 Grand Slam titles and would also win Wimbledon a record eight times.

Federer also achieved the career slam, something which Sampras never did. Sampras’ Grand Slam tally has since been overhauled by Nadal and Djokovic. Both players have also completed the career slam.

Federer’s tally of eight Wimbledon titles is a phenomenal feat for men’s Tennis. In 2021, he might try and win it for the ninth time, leveling himself with Martina Navratilova. However, with Federer at the age of 40, it will be providence if the change of the guard in the case of Federer happens in Wimbledon as it happened for Sampras in 2001. Twenty years later, the wheels of change have come a full circle.

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